Training another big expense

Besides travel, the major expense is for coaching.

"Serious coaching for aiming toward the Olympics will cost $2,000 to $4,000 a month," Pao wrote in an email.

Michael Hsing's family took serious coaching to another level.

"Our family might not be the norm, since we . . . had a live-in coach from China," Hsing wrote in an email. They also built a $40,000 table tennis room for daughter Ariel, who is the two-time defending U.S. women's champion.

"In average (sic), we spend about $40,000 a year," Hsing said. "So it's about $400,000 for 10 years."

That's competitive with dressage, the equestrian event in which Jan Ebeling rode Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare estimated to be worth $500,000. The horse is partly owned by Ann Romney, wife of Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Another determining factor in how much it costs to raise an Olympian is at what age serious training begins.

"For Ping Pong, it can start at age 6 or 7, and there is no upper limit," Pao wrote.

A late start is a money saver

Gevvie Stone's late entry into serious rowing may have been a money saver for her dad .

"Rowing is probably not an expensive sport in which to pursue an Olympic dream," Gevvie's father, R. Gregg Stone, wrote in an email, "probably because most athletes come to rowing later in life and through their schools and colleges, which cover the cost of serious training."

Gevvie, 27, of Newton, Mass., rowed in high school, but her father marks the start of her Olympic aspirations as her freshman year at Princeton.

The family has purchased a single shell for $8,000 and sculls (oars) for $500. It wasn't required for Gevvie, but it made training more convenient. Her parents belong to a boat club in Boston, which gives Gevvie access to water and boats when she's at home.

She did not make the 2008 team and began sculling (a form of racing in which the rower uses two oars) in the fall of that year while attending medical school. For the past four years, she has used Harvard's boathouses and Boston University's weightlifting facilities for nominal fees, according to Gregg Stone.

Once again, travel costs accounted for much of the Olympic expense: $10,000 for her travel from 2009 to 2011.

"At first (that was) all me, but US Rowing has pitched in more as her success increased," Gregg Stone said.

In Europe, Gevvie has used borrowed boats and has had her own boats moved by manufacturers for small fees.

There's another cost saving that has helped the Stone family: Gregg Stone is her main coach. Both he and her mother, Lisa, were Olympic rowers. Gevvie has continued the family tradition in London in the women's single event.

The Olympics aren't the only reward

Reaching for the Olympics can be expensive, but there can be other benefits along the way. For the Silver family of Bainbridge Island, Wash., college and scholarships were the primary goals for daughters Emily and Helen.

"I don't know the specifics of how much it cost us over the years," said Bob Silver, who has his own public relations firm. "I can tell you that making the Olympic team was never a specific goal in all of it."

To the Silvers, getting help with college seemed a more realistic goal than competing in the Olympics.

"Only 0.02% of all U.S. swimmers actually make the team," Silver said. "Only 24 to 26 women make the team every four years, so the odds are incredibly steep, regardless of who you are."

Both Emily and Helen swam for the University of California, Berkeley, and Emily competed in the 4-by-100 freestyle relay in the 2008 Olympics. The team finished second to the Netherlands.

"I don't have a clue where to begin in estimating the overall cost, and frankly, in the grand scheme of things, the amount is meaningless," Silver said.

"There is no way to put a price tag on that one moment when you watch your daughter walk onto a pool deck and hear her name announced to represent the United States in the Olympic Games. It took Emily 13 years to travel from Bainbridge Island to that pool deck in Beijing, and we gladly would spend those dollars over again to relive that experience."